Theatre Ghosts: Part 2 — The Ghosts We Conjure

C. Austin Hill

Who doesn’t enjoy a good theatre ghost story?  This will be the second in a 3-part series on ghosts in the theatre.  In part 1—The Ghosts We Inherit, I will shared some of my ghostly encounters.  In this part—“The Ghosts We Conjure,” I will discuss live theatre as a place for memory and the invocation of spirits. Part 3 will be called “The Ghosts We Leave Behind.”

I admit, the title to this column is a little misleading.  I imagine that you might have expected me to write about Ouija Boards and midnight games of “bloody Mary,” séances and psychics, you know—real-life attempts to make contact with those on the “other side.”  Though there is plenty of room for such a piece (seriously, if you don’t know about WB Yeats fascination with the occult, it makes an amazing read!), I want to write instead about something a little more philosophical and hard to substantiate.  I want to talk about memory.

In his outstanding 2003 book THE HAUNTED STAGE: THE THEATRE AS MEMORY MACHINE, Marvin Carlson says (among other things) that whenever an actor takes the stage, she cannot help but invoke—in the minds of her audience—the “ghosts” of every actor who has ever played her role before.  In fact, Carlson suggests, these ghosts will stand beside her throughout her performance, in support, in judgment, and in comparison.  This is true, too, of every bit of staging, every line reading, every costume, every prop…Carlson quotes Herbert Blau’s observation that whenever we are watching theatre “we are seeing what we saw before.” 

In practical terms, what Carlson is saying is that any actor who plays Elphaba will ALWAYS invoke Idina Menzel.  All Witches in INTO THE WOODS will invoke Bernadette Peters, Meryl Streep, Vanessa Williams, and any other actor who has played the role.  All Javert’s will invoke not only Terrence Mann, Roger Allam, and Norm Lewis, but also Russell Crowe.  When you deliver “To Be or Not To Be,” you take the stage with Olivier, and Ethan Hawke, and Mel Gibson, and Frankie from your 9th Grade English class. 

Some of this ghosting can be very limiting.  On Broadway, it is customary and expected for replacements to attempt to almost imitate the actors who created roles, while hopefully still breathing creative and original life into their performances.  It doesn’t always work—I saw a performance of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on Broadway once where the actor (I won’t name him here…) playing the title role was robotic, mechanical, and excruciatingly bland.  There was no life in his performance, only an attempt to do his best Michael Crawford…in part because that was what the audience expected.  Matthew Broderick’s Harold Hill was terrible, but mostly because he wasn’t Robert Preston. 

But this ghosting can also be very freeing.  If Carlson is right, we can also assume that our audiences are prepared to look for nuance.  As I watched the latest Broadway revival of ON THE 20TH CENTURY, I was delighted in how Chenowith made Lily Garland her own, even as I remembered Madeline Kahn’s Tony-Winning performance, and the work of the talented young lady who played he role when I did the show in Salt Lake City in 2001.  I was awed at how similar, and different, the set looked, and at how Scott Ellis had staged the piece.  Having all of that baggage on stage IMPROVED my experience…I’m sure that I enjoyed the show much more for having that background.

Right now I am directing AS YOU LIKE IT for a summer production at my college.  In that show, of course, lies the infamous “All the world’s a stage” speech.  I am very lucky to have that role—and therefore that speech—in the hands of a very capable actor.  Michael and I have talked about the difficulties he faces in delivering the monologue—namely the ghosts of all those who have Jaques-ed before him.  He shares the stage with Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and all other actors who have tried to explain—in Shakespeare’s words—the performativity of self.  Michael innately understands this, and his work to make the words mean something fresh and relevant and funny has been terrific so far. 

As artists, I think it is important to know the ghosts we conjure.  It is important to know our audiences’ expectations, joys, and fears.  There are boxes in their memories that we may wish to tick—do we really want to perform LES MIZ without a waving red flag?  If so why?—and others we may wish to avoid.  But it bears a reminder that we have that responsibility, and that we can immediately simultaneously invoke memory and create new experience.